Storm Doris. And her opposite. (Thursday 23 February 2017)
So very windy today – London’s catching the swishing skirts of Storm Doris. I pass many people gripping their jackets and coats tightly around them as they dash to pick up some lunch.
I take an anti clockwise route around the perimeter path of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which wraps this space, the largest garden square in London. The paths are strewn with twigs, shed from the mature plane trees which give this space its crisscrossing vaulted roof. Clatters more with every gust. No one seems much bothered by this fall of wood; there’s a healthy flow of lunchtime walkers in ones and twos and more. A mix of students, lawyers and office workers, local residents walking dogs. But, much more than any other park I’ve visited in this project: so many runners, fitness groups. The slap of trainers on tarmac. And, on the south quarter, overshadowed by the imposing portico of the Royal College of Surgeons and Hunterian Museum, are the tennis courts, bursting out of their nets with vigour and volleys.
Bounce back 500 years or so and this was a cattle grazed pasture called Cup Field. Londoners came out here from the City to fill their lungs with fresh air or take part in open air sports such as jousting, swordfighting or archery. Turnstiles were placed on the footpaths into the fields to allow people in, but to stop livestock straying. These remembered in the names of three narrow alleyways just to the north of the park: Little Turnstile, Great Turnstile and New Turnstile.
Lincoln’s Inn itself is one of London’s four Inns of Court, housed in a collection of fine historic buildings set in a collegiate enclave of courtyards and gardens, just to the east of the Fields. A diaper patterned brick wall surrounds and encloses its eleven acre estate. Lawyers were originally encouraged to move up here to the hamlet of Holborn in the 13th century by the third Earl of Lincoln after a royal decree that no legal education could take place in the City of London. The Inn became formally established and purchased the present site in the 16th century. The turreted towers and tall Gothic windows of the Great Hall (built in the 1840s) and the Library (completed in the 1870s), peer out over these fields.
I’m blown towards the centre of the park, where a large gravelled circle is a hub to the four north, east, south and west tarmac paths plus one earthy diagonal shortcut track worn across the northeast lawn. A surrounding ring of mature plane trees. Dead centre to this is an octagonal bandstand or shelter. A brass plaque set into the floor reads: “Near this spot was beheaded William Lord Russell, a lover of constitutional liberty 21 July AD 1683”. This was the site of occasional public executions. Lord William Russell (mentioned in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 45 Russell Square, Bloomsbury) was executed (with four clumsy hamfisted blows of the axe, it’s said) for his alleged part in the Rye House Plot: the attempted assassination of King Charles II. He was later proven innocent and posthumously pardoned. Which I’m sure made him feel a whole lot better!
I start setting my drawing things up under the shelter but realise it’s filling with people in sports gear getting ready for a class, doing warm up exercises and stretching and making appropriate sporty grunts and snorts. I back away and set up instead in front of a bushy thicket to draw the view across the park, with the former Land Registry Building (now a department of the London School of Economics) a stately redbrick backdrop. I start scribbling, one hand holding my easel from being blown over, trying to describe the upper tree branches swinging and swooping with the wind, a curly, jiggly aerial dance. There’s even movement detectable in the upper trunks. The gale rages overhead in waves of roaring bursts, but thankfully no rain. With every wave, a great crashing racket like an explosion! It turns out to be plastic sheeting covering scaffolding at the northwest corner of the square. The exercise class goes on regardless, under the canopy, led by a girl in lime green lycra. Her voice shrill across the gravel, enthusiastically counting her victims through a sequence of acts of self torture.
Across to my right, the Fields Cafe parasols are being buffeted and shaken. Five hundred years ago, that spot was the site of a gunpowder house (after many accidental explosions and fires in the City, gunpowder storage was moved out to fields like this, well away from habitation or means of detonation). But London was fast expanding in this direction and it wasn’t long before developers saw the plump potential of these fields for building. Lincoln’s Inn enjoyed its rural and pastoral outlook so took a dim and nimby view to proposals for development. It was only after several decades of negotiations between the landowners and the Inn that agreement was reached whereby houses could be built, but the Inn had control over their design . And these seven acres where I’m drawing today, was to be kept green, with walks and trees and lawns.
In the 1700s, residents of the square, outraged by roguery, thievery and rubbish tipping in the fields appealed to have the square enclosed. Which it was in the 1730s, making it a private and more genteel space of lawns and paths and, for a while, a duck pond just about where I’m standing. Later in that century, many of the fine houses around this square were taken on by wealthy lawyers, attracted by its proximity to the Royal Law Courts. Barrister’s chambers were founded and solicitors’ offices opened (including Farrer & Co who are still there today, in their stately premises at No. 66; solicitors to much of the aristocracy, and the Queen).
Drawing finished (see at top), I shake a couple of twigs out of my rucksack and haul it on my back and explore the rest of the park. Sunshine flings tree shadows across the fields. Dogs of all sorts are having a field day, with a million sticks to chase after. A group of runners are sprinting across the gravel, crunching woody debris as they go. Parks workers are trying to collect up the fallen twigs, but one of their large canvas sacks has escaped from the truck. It careers past, billowing, dancing; it pirouettes a full circle on one of its corners before being whisked away behind a stand of shrubs.
The layout of the park hasn’t changed much since the start of the nineteenth century, with perimeter shrubberies, trees and bandstand. Towards the eastern side was a little subtropical plantation, which is still here. The park was eventually opened to the public in 1894 and was immediately popular, being pretty well the only substantial piece of public green space for at least half a mile in any direction. Bands played on summer afternoons. Areas were set aside for tennis and golf putting. As I walk the paths I pass several memorials, but the one that stands out the most commemorates Margaret MacDonald the social reformer (wife of Ramsey MacDonald, first Labour prime minister), who died in 1911, way too early at the age of 41. A curving bench seat topped with a sculpture (created by sculptor Richard Goulden), of this beneficent woman, tending a twisting clutch of playing children and inscribed below: “This seat placed here in memory of Margaret MacDonald who spent her life in helping others”.
The sun catches specks of pink standing out against the dark of a holly tree. Blossom glowing on bare black viburnum sticks. I scramble around and start a drawing from behind them (see below), looking through and across the open stretch of northern lawns. Leaves scratching the back of my neck as the tree sways. Cold gusts in my face. A constant parade of runners pass. A game of three a side football gets underway on the worn grass. Bags and coats for goals.
And then, from the corner of my eye, a tightly raincoated figure, bent over, almost double, shuffling along. Painfully, painfully, picking her way with a pair of sticks. Woollen hat pulled over ears, bag over shoulder. Advancing so very slowly, gaze intent on dragging feet and knocking the odd twig away with a stick. She pauses in front of me and tortuously turns her head round from under her collar to look up. I smile and nod. She looks for a while; a slight tremor, then gets back to her mission. It takes a full five minutes for her to walk across my field of vision. Quiet and measured: the very opposite of today’s Storm Doris. And I think: of all the people in this park today, exercising, stretching and pushing themselves to the limit, it’s that bowed and aged soul who wins, hands down, the gold medal for endurance and determination.
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a London exhibition in 2018. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly) www.nickandrew.co.uk
Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, London. WC2A 3TL
Open 8am – dusk
Google earth view here